Revelation 21: no death nor mourning

Reading: Revelation 21

Most of Revelation can be described as events that happened in the late first century and, when I read Revelation, I strongly prefer that description. I really do like reading commentaries that suggest what item of late 1st Century history is described. The last couple of chapters cannot be described that way. Revelation 21 begins with the New Heaven and the New Earth, established, replacing the old ones that had `passed away.’

There are many things that I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that the world I live in has not yet passed away. I look around, and I can see that this isn’t exactly heaven — there is still something that we are looking forward to. The last chapters of Revelation are full of promise, they describe the hope that we have.

We have always looked forward to the promise of heaven, but oddly, our vision of heaven is imperfect. When hear people trying to describe heaven, it does not sound that interesting. When I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, his “Inferno” was engaging and memorable, but “Paradisio” was more than a little dull. I have, like everybody before me, great difficulty figuring out what to say about heaven.

I love the book Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, but there is no similar book that shows a discussion of the politics of heaven working to save souls. In the introduction of Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis observes:

Ideally, Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood should have been balanced by archangelical advice to the patient’s guardian angel. Without this the picture of human life is lopsided. But who could supply the deficiency? Even if a man — and he would have to be a far better man than I — could scale the spiritual heights required, what “answerable style” could he use? For the style would really be part of the content.  Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven.

I find myself in exactly the same position as C.S. Lewis, and Dante, and everybody who tries to speak of heaven; I do not have the words, I do not have the style that breathes of heaven. As much as I strive to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, it is a place that I have never seen. Remember, when the Hebrews left slavery in Egypt for the promised land, they didn’t even want to finish the journey, because they could not imagine what it was like to be free.

Revelation 21 promises us that “Death will be no more; mourning and pain will be no more.” this is a great promise, and guess that it gave those who were facing persecution and death hope that they had something to look forward to beyond the utter powerlessness that they faced in life; but I also know that I live in a world where tears are very real. I know that death seems very close, and I know that my something in my soul cries rejecting it.

Right now, it seems that the whole world is in tears. I hear about one disaster after another. I hear about those who died in Mexico from the earthquakes, I hear about those who died in hospitals and nursing homes that lost power in Florida and Puerto Rico, I hear about people who are still homeless in Texas, and I expect that I’ll be hearing about disasters and suffering for some time to come.

As you know, the pastor of Valley Mills Friends recently learned she has terminal cancer, and she is currently in hospice care. Karla and I visited her yesterday; we’ve seen her several times since we learned of her condition. What you might not know is that when she was healthy, we’d meet for dinner most months. She was an ally to Iglesia Amigos, and was a big part of the vision for Valley Mills to host a Hispanic ministry. Marilee Gabriel is our friend.

I know every one of you has watched a loved one die; I know that Raysville Friends has a long history of funerals. I know that all of you know the basic truth that when things hurt, the right answers don’t make the pain go away. I know faith helps — but when we are not yet in the place where mourning, crying, and pain are no more. Mourning, crying, and pain is very much a part of the world we live in, and I am aware of this fact.

I also know that faith means that my grandfather was not afraid to face death. After he went to too many funerals, including his siblings, his wife, his son, his cousins, he was ready to go to his own; and while he wasn’t exactly praying for death to come quickly, he did make it clear that he was looking forward to being reunited with so many people he loved, soon. Knowing this did not make it easier to bury him. Mourning is something that must happen.

We must not mistake mourning and tears for a lack of faith. It is very hard to say goodbye, even if it only for a time. It is very frightening to face a major change, even if we trust the one who said that He goes to prepare a place. C.S. Lewis wrote two books that deal with theology, pain and loss. The first book he wrote was titled The problem with pain where he answered questions like: “Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is good, why is there so much suffering?” When his wife died, Lewis wrote A grief observed where he shared his pain, his doubts, his despair; and how little comfort he received when he was given answers. He had already written a book filled with all the answers anybody could ever want, and then he found answers do nothing to cure a broken heart. There is no shortcut to mourning; not even the promise of a place where the cause of mourning ceases.

I think that mourning is one of the best proofs I have of heaven. There is something in the human spirit that rejects death. We not only have the promise of a place without death, suffering, and mourning, but we mourn as if death is a surprise to us. Nature shows us that every creature dies; yet there is something deep inside us that rejects every death. We seem to instinctively know that there shouldn’t be a place for death. Even after experience with death, we are ill suited for it; we continue to mourn.

We are given a promise that our hearts long for; but the promise that somewhere there will be a kingdom where these terrible things that our hearts reject as wrong does not change the fact that we don’t live there yet. We live in a world where pain, suffering, and death happen every day, and far too often they are happening in a way that touches us personally. I look forward to the promise I read, the promise that there will be no more mourning — but, for today, I see death and suffering; and I mourn.


Revelation 19:1-10 — True and just judgments

Reading: Revelation 19:1-10
I guess this is the second time that somebody was saying that the world would end while I was here — the last time, we were studying Isaiah — and the last time I told the story of Allen Jay and his father, back the first time he heard about the world ending — and his father Isaac telling him to do his chore of chopping wood, because they’d need the wood for the winter. Like Isaac, we can all say that we’ve seen the end of the world predicted many times — and each time, those who believed it was coming were disappointed; those who were frighted were frightened for nothing.

Another thing that stands out is that these pronouncements of the end of the world happen when we are looking at Christ’s throne in heaven. The week after the blood moon prophecy did not happen, we studied Isaiah 65, which is directly quoted in Revelation 21. This week, the day after the Jupiter-Virgo prophecy is supposed to happen, we are reading from Revelation 19. It is an interesting coincidence that these prophecies happen when we are looking forward to the coming kingdom — then again, maybe it isn’t. We are always looking forward to the coming kingdom. Our very hope is in the resurrection and that Christ himself has gone to prepare a place for us.

There are many things that I could talk about today, I could talk about John worshiping the angel, and the angel telling him to worship God instead. If this were last year, that is what I would most likely choose. I could talk about the marriage feast, and about how the Church is the bride of Christ. I could talk about worship, and about Christian theology. There are so many things that are worth talking about; but one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t talk about everything at once — is just too confusing, so I am going to choose the topic of justice.

When English speakers hear the word justice, they think one of two things. One thing that we might think is that justice is what happens to the person who is accused of a crime. Many people hear justice and feel that it means punishment. If these people feel that something was not just, they feel that this means that nobody was punished, and something happened where punishment was necessary. The most extreme cases are people who feel it is more important that somebody is punished than if the person who was punished was guilty of the crime. While I personally cannot see how punishing the innocent satisfies justice, I know that there are those feel differently.

Others hear justice, and they believe that the word refers to things being done in a way that is fair and in good order. They believe that justice is about protecting the people who cannot protect themselves, and make sure that they are treated fairly, so that those who are more powerful cannot take advantage of them.

When I read the word in the New Testament, I mentally change it to `Righteous’, which means that I read “His judgments are true and righteous.” One thing that I know is that the judgments that the Early Christians experienced were those based on slander, they were unjustly accused, unjustly arrested, and at times unjustly executed. For the early Christians, I am sure that the promise of just judgments was a promise that in Christ’s kingdom, thing would be better. We want nothing more than a justice system that is fair.

Fairness means a lot to me. There is something inside me that is annoyed when I see something that is unfair. I want to live in a society where things are fair; and one of the hardest lessons in life is that life isn’t fair. Even when nobody is trying to be unfair, life isn’t fair — but it sure is good to know that the final judge will be one who judges justly.

When I think of the context, I wonder who the judge judges. I know that when I was a child, I was told that the whore of Babylon was the apostate church, and its powerful institution. I was pretty directly told that it was the Catholic church; and this interpretation was common enough that one can find it inside the pages of a i Reference Bible or even in the Westminster confession of faith. Before the reformation, interpreters have named the prostitute Jerusalem, and later interpreters have refined the Jerusalem theory to suggest a political party that collaborated with Rome such as the Herodians or the Sadducees and Pharisees.

The Jerusalem theory is attractive because it is an ancient theory, and those who argue for it really do make sense. The Jerusalem theory also is strong because Jesus died in Jerusalem — and the people in power and Rome worked together for the Crucifixion. Furthermore, we see that the late first century Christians were suffering both from the negative attention of Rome, and from being thrown out of the synagogue. The conflict between the early Church and the Jewish elite was one of the major issues in Revelation. The promise that Jerusalem would face judgment from a just judge might have been comforting to those who were cast out of the synagogue. I am almost convinced, but not quite.

I have a problem with all of these interpretations, including the traditional view that it is Jerusalem because none of them make sense in context of the end of the first century. Jerusalem, and the politics of Jerusalem are no longer a relevant issue after the complete destruction of the city; it would still be some time before Jerusalem was rebuilt. I considered that maybe the whore of Babylon represented Jerusalem, and Jerusalem represented the elite of the Synagogue, but this makes little sense to me when John wrote earlier of the synagogue of Satan; why the double layer of code when John is willing to be direct in the first 2 chapters? I think I should look somewhere else.

As far as church leadership conspiring with Rome, and the church becoming effectively a tool of the empire, I must observe that at the time Revelation was written, the church was not in a position to even imagine making deals with Babylon. (I’m convinced Revelation means Rome whenever Babylon is written). I know that this was a reoccurring issue between from the fourth century until now, but in the first century the church was too week for the Empire to consider it a worthy ally.

I might not know what Revelation means when it speaks of Babylon’s whore, but I do think that the readers had a pretty good idea what he was talking about. Now that I’m 1900 years away from Christianity in Asia minor, I’d have trouble guessing what it could be talking about, but I do have a couple of broad guesses from what I know about the time.

My first guess is that maybe it is someone, or a group of somebodies who sold out their Christian community to Rome. If it were, I would suggest that it belongs to the group called the Lapsi. The lapsi were those who somehow sold out their Christianity in the face of persecution. Some of the lapsi gave names and information, others sacrificed to Roman gods or burned incense, others bribed a Roman official for the certificate saying they met their obligation, even when they had not actually burned the pinch of incense at Caesar’s altar.

If it is the lapsi, then I can tell you that one of the biggest arguments in the second century church was about what to do with those Christians who collaborated with the empire, in whatever way. The church split between those who felt that this betrayal was unforgivable, and those who felt that the gospel was about forgiveness — and even this sin could be forgiven; though trust did not come as quickly as forgiveness. I personally find it ironic that the father of Western Christianity, who’s writings still influence the Western church Tertullian was also condemned as a heretic because he was opposed to forgiving the Lapsi.

In 250 AD, after Tertullian death, Cyprian created a procedure for rehabilitating Lapsi into the Christian community. Depending on the nature of the betrayal, rehabilitation of status in the church could take anywhere from 2 years to only fully rehabilitating a person’s status at the time of death for the worst of betrayals.

One reason I like this idea is that it suggests an application to us. I believe there are still lapsi in the church. Not only do I believe there are lapsi, but I believe that we’ve come to an age where the Church no longer condemns them but instead raises them to places of leadership. The lapsi were those who betrayed what Christians believed, and offered their pinch of incense to Rome. The lapsi were those who betrayed their faith for the good graces of the kingdom of this world. I think we should all be careful as Christians that we remember our faith; and we don’t throw away what we believe in order to better fit with a political party. For those, like me, who preach — we should be especially careful, because we are in a place where we could easily call evil good and good evil, trying for a little political gain.

My friend Jared Warner, pastor at Willow Creek Friends in Kansas City described it this way:

The whore of Babylon is the religious people who use the world and faith for personal gain. During the life of Christ, Jewish people used Rome to get what they wanted. In the age of the church, wouldn’t it be similar? Those who focus on themselves, not the actual church, but their own gain is over the kingdom of God.

I am only speculating; but I am speculating in a direction that might place many who are in the church, including Church leaders before Christ’s throne. I know that I’m speculating in a way that means many in the church will face Christ judgment. The good news is, I know something about Christ’s judgment. Christ is more forgiving than we are. Our judge is the one who went to prepare a place. Our judge is the one who saved the woman caught in adultery. Our judge is the one who promises that while men judge one outward appearance he will judge from the heart. Our judge is the one who prayed for those who crucified him on the cross saying: “Father forgive them.” Our judge is the one who already forgave us our sin.

Now, I’m not saying that we should be careless in our faith — I’m saying that we should not be frightened to face the one who loves and forgives us completely and perfectly. In fact, our motivation to do our best should be a recognition of the love Christ has shown for us — not fear that we don’t always live up to the good name that Christ has given us. We should be careful because Christ loves us, and we love Christ as well. We all know that there are places we have fallen short — we also know that love covers a multitude of sins. In our relationships, we depend on this — but, just because we need our friends and family to forgive us, and we rely on them to do so does not mean we betray them because we will be forgiven. We must carefully examine our lives and our words and be sure that we remain faithful to Christ.


The lamb on the throne

Reading:  Revelation 5:1-14

The one thing that strikes me about the first century church is that it was completely powerless. Revelation is addressed to a church that is facing a great persecution. The first century church was filled with people at the bottom of society. It is addressed to Christians who were recently thrown out of the synagogue, they had caught the negative attention of Rome, they were blamed for the problems that happened in society. Christians were not just persecuted — but, in the stories that were being told about them, Christians were the villains.

Revelation is a letter addressed to the church in Asia Minor, which is now called Turkey. Every one of the seven churches are in major cities of the time; whether the regional capital, a major city of trade, an industrial center, or other traditional centers of power. The Roman Empire knew the names of these cities, and these cities were big enough to have the Emperor’s ear. Several of these cities had temples to deified emperors such as Caesars Augustus — two of these cities were so powerful that they suffered Emperor’s envy.

Christians remember the Emperor Domitian as the second great persecution. Many historians don’t believe that Domitian singled out the Christians — but whether or not he had Christians in mind, the Christians suffered greatly under his policies. Domitian decided to emphasize traditional Roman religion. He personally had a temple built to Jupiter, and he worked to increase the practice of worshiping dead Emperors. His first act as Emperor was to declare that his late brother Titus, the former emperor, was a god, and he had temple built for the worship of his father and brother.

Christians refused to participate in Emperor worship. They would not say Caesar is Lord concerning the living emperor, and they would not pray to the dead emperors. In many places, this meant exclusion from Roman society and a ban from trade. In some cases, it meant physical danger. Whether or not Christians were singled out, their lives were being destroyed by the empire — and their beliefs were not accepted by society. Christians had no power, and any power or wealth a Christian might have was quickly being taken away.

In Revelation 5, we see an image of the slaughtered lamb on the throne, in all trappings of authority. The lamb is called the lion of Judah, the root of David, the conqueror. The lamb had the authority to open the sealed document — a document that had a seal on it to show that it was not disturbed between the sender and the one receiving it; in other words a document that was written for the king’s eyes only. This picture in Revelation makes it clear that Christ is in the ultimate authority.

Now, there are different ways of interpreting this. One common way is to see that Christ’s throne is above all other thrones. We can easily quote Paul in a way that suggests that every king is under Christ, and they are, as political authorities, authorities to do good for the kingdom of heaven established on Earth.

The idea that the emperor is God’s agent on Earth is a pretty easy concept when the Emperor is Christian, and the state religion is Christianity. This was the dominant understanding after the 4th century throughout Christian Europe. It made sense, because you had a Christian king, and he was crowned king by a Christian bishop. The church clearly recognized the king’s right to rule.

This understanding is fairly popular in the United States as well; and why shouldn’t it be? Almost all of our presidents were publicly Christian, and Christian ethics are commonly discussed in congress when crafting laws. The inaugural prayer service has been a tradition since the founding of our nation; it is usually held at the National Cathedral, and it does give a sense that faith has a rather public role in our government. One of the first public actions of a president is to appear in a religious service that lasts for three and a half hours.

When Christianity is on friendly terms with the state, it is easy to picture the rulers as God’s subjects — who will be judged by God according to whether or not they governed according to God’s law. When we see the officials of the church and the officials of the state standing together, and the church blessing the state; it is hard to think otherwise.

The picture of Christ having the ultimate authority might not have had the same implications to the 1st century church. Things are very different now than when Revelation was written. One thing that stands out to me in this passage is that the lamb on the throne was slain. We have to remember that Jesus died on a Roman cross; Roman soldiers stood guard around his grave to make sure that he stayed buried — and when he rose from the dead, he conquered the act of Rome, and Rome’s military might. The picture of the Lamb that was slain, but still conquered isn’t a picture of Christ putting the emperor into power, but a picture of a Christ who’s power was far greater than the empire.

At this point, interpretation becomes difficult for me. I grew up with the idea that I lived in an effectively Christian culture, and everything that I saw around me supported this idea. There was also an idea that there were forces that were trying to reduce Christian influence from our world and culture — there of course were many stories that could be given as examples of this as well. I grew up aware of the culture war, and knowing which side was the right side.

On the other hand, I learned in history classes about all of the evil that was done by people who claimed to be God’s representatives on Earth. History taught me how much corruption was possible in a Christian nation — especially if people were afraid to touch the leaders that God supported, leaving it so that at the end of the day they were only accountable to God. Learning this part of history, I was somewhat skeptical of my own Christian nation.

Conversely, I learned about the evil done by secular nations. I learned about the viciousness of communist governments; as a student of Church history, I learned about how brutal the Roman government was for the first few centuries after Christ. I also learned how brutal society was. I learned about abandoning children to death, I learned about a world where only the powerful mattered, and where life was not treated as sacred. I also learned how Christian ideas seeped into culture and changed the hearts and minds of the people. I learned how Christian Rome eventually ended blood sports, I learned how people started making a real effort to care for the sick, and to save unwanted babies.

When I look at the difference between Christian Rome and Rome before Constantine — it is hard for me to regret that the Emperor became Christian. Even with all its rough edges, I prefer Christian Europe to pre-Christian Europe. I understand the challenge Christianity had in adapting to its new place of privilege, considering that the New Testament was addressed to a Christianity facing existential threats, living in a hostile world with an uncertain survival. I much prefer the world where the Empire and the Church are friends; I much prefer the world inhabited by great theologians trying to understand this new situation.

When I look at history and see all the ways the church has failed to be the church; ways where it represented the Roman Emperor rather than Christ, I see that when Jesus said he did not intend to establish a Kingdom of this world, the church won’t be successful at establishing godliness by using the government. The problem I see in history, including recently, is that Christianity can be distracted by political power, begin to compromise in order to hold onto that power.

Jesus taught us that he did not wish to build a kingdom of this world. Jesus did not want to be the emperor, Jesus did not want the church to become a political party — you see, the kingdom of heaven is lasting in a way that political parties and dynasties are not. The kingdom of heaven is not thrones, nor strong men but it is salt, it is light, it is mustard.

I think that the way that the Kingdom of Heaven changes the kingdoms of Earth is by changing everyday people. When we look to governments to change the world, we make a mistake. Governments can make laws, they can enforce laws, but they do nothing to change the human heart. Christianity started with a few powerless people; people who learned to have faith, and to live according to love, even when love is difficult. It started with a few people who had no power, but were willing to die for what they believed in — and who would do what was right, even when the world was wrong.

For centuries, innocent Christians died; people who were slandered, but who did nothing but good to their neighbors, and the known good character eventually defeated slander. Eventually innocence defeated false convictions. Eventually people sought to become more like the Christians — more Christlike — Christians were salt, light yeast, and eventually Christians were everywhere and changed everything.

I have come to believe that the way Christians change the world isn’t by changing governments directly. I believe that Christianity changes the world by changing something far more lasting — Christianity changes the hearts of the people.

Jeremiah 29:1-14 Plans to give a future and a hope

Reading: Jeremiah 29:1-14

The words of this passage are very familiar to me. The promise that God gives God’s people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.” (Jeremiah 29: 11-12 KJV) is a promise that I often see on posters. These are words that many people keep coming back to, because they are words of hope.

I admit — when I see these words on a poster, they are separated from the context. When lives are comfortable, it is easy to look to the promise that God has a special plan for us — when our lives are hard, then these words are very difficult to believe. The words are most difficult to believe if they are given to us in the context of words that take away every bit of hope that we have.

When Jeremiah wrote this letter to the exiles, Jerusalem had fallen to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. The leading people of Judah were taken away from their homes, and they were sent somewhere else to live. One of the communities where they were sent was Babylon — the capitol of an enemy empire that destroyed their homeland. These were not people living in a safe situation — these were people living in a place where they were surrounded by enemies.

Not only were they in a hostile place, but this letter was not actually the kind of letter that would bring hope. In order to preserve hope, the exiles were telling each other that this would all be over soon, that they could go home and rebuild. The exiles were putting on a brave face, and hoping to return home. Jeremiah the prophet sent them a letter telling them that the hope that they had was wrong — that they would die in a hostile land, never to see home again. This hope crushing letter is still something we keep going back to and quoting, why, because it says: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This promise to people facing the worst news they can imagine surely is for us as well.

I don’t know what it means to live in a hostile nation. I don’t know what it means to have hope stripped away; I have never lived in exile, I’ve never lived in fear of the police, I’ve never felt that place where I lived was hostile just because of who I was. I cannot look back at my experience and know what the Jews in Babylon must have felt — especially as they had this bad news. My experience does not tell me these things, and my imagination isn’t quite good enough to tell how I would respond to these things; you see I imagine myself braver than I am.

The truth is, I stand here, and I realize that there are people in this room who can understand. Last month has been a tough month for you — and you are in my prayers. I know that some of you are nervous when you see police. I have learned that there are some people who use their little bit of authority to harass people. I realize that there are some of you who have face ICE, and have been to the immigration courts. I know that this experience is frightening, and my thoughts and prayers are with you.

Two weeks ago, I listened to our attorney General, Jeff Sessions speak. In his speech, he included a lengthy list of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. This list included some fairly detailed descriptions that included names and ethnicity. When listening to this man try to demonstrate that Hispanics are a danger to the United States, I realized that this is dangerous. As Sessions spoke of local police forces refusing to protect the public from this danger, I feared that somebody might take up arms to protect his community from the brown threat. I know that Jeff Sessions was only talking about those who could be deported — but I also know that you can’t tell a natural born citizen from an immigrant by looking, and I don’t know anybody who carries around their birth certificate to prove citizenship. If your ancestors are largely Mayan, Inca, Aztec, or any of the other people who are indigenous to the Americas; you can’t change your skin. When Jeff Sessions mentioned the crime committed by a Guatemalan, and suggested that law enforcement refuses to protect the people from such criminals — it puts everyone of Mayan descent in danger — and considering that violent racist don’t really care to verify genealogy any more than they care to verify status, it puts everyone of visibly Native American descent in danger.

The danger that I speak of is something that I’ve seen in a community that is familiar to Karla and me. When we visit Kansas, one of the stops that I make is in Oletha; which is a quiet suburb of Kansas City with a Christian college. Several months ago, the President spoke of the danger of radical Islamic terrorism — and following that speech, somebody saw a couple Indians eating at a restaurant. The man pulled a gun on them, yelled get out of my country, and murdered them. He drove to another town, went to a restaurant, and asked to be hidden, because he killed an Iranian. Now, these Indians were not Iranian, they were not Muslims, and they were not terrorists; and they were here legally, working as Engineers for Garmin. Violent racists don’t care about immigration status — nor even getting nationality correct. If hate is a danger to electrical Engineers — it is a danger to everybody who can’t change their skin.

As I’ve been watching this hateful insanity, I’ve been learning that even those I thought would be sympathetic are not always. I’ve learned that doors that I thought would be are being shut. The more my eyes are opened, the more I see that you are a community that can identify with the Jews in Babylonian captivity. The more my eyes are opened, the more I see that the story of an America that welcomes people isn’t always true. It breaks my heart to have learned this.

The thing is, the more you are like the Jews in Babylon, the more sure I can be that the promise is for you — the promise that God wants good for you and not evil. I know you and I both pray to Jesus, I know that we both hold onto the name were were given, Christian. I know that we are members of the same kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. You are my fellow citizens in Christ — this cannot change. Because I know who you are, I know that the hope offered in this promise is yours.

I also see that Jeremiah gives advice to people living in a land that is an enemy land. The advice that Jeremiah gave was to live — to build houses, to plant gardens, to marry and have families. He advised the people who lived in a hostile land to live normal lives in that land. This seems to be good advice to me, because what other choice did they have? What choice do you have? You have to live your life — the alternative is to die waiting for a chance to live.

Living life, and having your family live life though isn’t the only advice that is given. The rest of the advice is difficult advice: Remember this is advice to people living in a hostile city and nation!

Jeremiah tells the Jews living in Babylon to work and pray for the prosperity of the city — to work and pray that Babylon prospers. The advice is to seek good for your neighbors, and for the wider community, even if it is a hostile place filled with enemies. The reason Jeremiah gives is that “As Babylon prospers, so you will also prosper.” This really makes sense if you think about it. If you are going to live your life somewhere — you hope that it is a good place to live. If you live in the city, what is good for that city is good for everybody, so hope for that good.

Now, I would like to call on us to follow one part of the advice given by Jeremiah — stand, and lets pray. There is something that has been called a concert of prayer where the leader calls out prayer requests, and everybody prays. I have a few things to pray for — I will call them out, and wait as we pray. Let us pray together.

  • For peace and prosperity in the United States and Indianapolis
  • For President Donald Trump, that he governs wisely and well
  • For our congressmen and our judges
  • For governor Eric Holcomb, that he governs wisely and well
  • For our city government, our schools, and our civic workers
  • For those who are poor and those who are sick
  • For Iglesia Amigos

Message given at Iglesia Amigos de Indianapolis.

Revelation 3:7-13 — Closed doors and open doors

Reading: Revelation 3:7-13

We are continuing our overview of the 7 churches with Philadelphia. If you notice, the letter to Philadelphia does not condemn them for anything. The struggles that they suffer are mentioned, but there is nothing but love and compassion for this struggling church. If our church were to get a letter, I hope that it would be such a letter.

For those of you who were in Sunday school, you have learned that the city of Philadelphia was a city that was one prosperous but now faced struggles. The video we watched talked about how the city was devastated by an earthquake, and then the Emperor Domitian ordered them to destroy the local vineyards so not to compete with the Italian Wine industry.

In addition to that, they mentioned something that had become a continuing theme in these letters to the churches; the argument of whether or not Christians were a Jewish sect. This argument had been going on for some time, and historians disagree on whether or not this argument had yet been resolved. Some say that a clear decision was made about 85 AD, but there is evidence that there were synagogues that included Jewish Christians well into the 2nd century. By 98 AD, however, the distinction was clear enough that Roman law did not include Christians as Jews.

This process of separation, which by this point had been going on for about 40 years, was a hard process to say the least. I know a little bit of the pain of seeing doors closed — especially doors that at one point very familiar to me, but can you imagine going to your place of worship, and being told that you are no longer welcome? Can you imagine the doors of your church being closed to you? I know the language in Revelation is a more harsh than we find acceptable now; but, at the time it was a personal hurt — when the synagogue doors were shut, the Christians were separated from not only the pagan community, but the community that worshiped God as well.

Historians estimate that at the end of the First Century there were thousands of Christians, most likely less than 10,000 — this number comes from assuming that Christians grew at a consistent rate until Christianity became the main Roman religion in the fourth century. Even if we are to guess that the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation is the number of Christians, this would be a tiny fraction of the 60 million or so people who lived in the Roman empire. While the best we can do is guess — there is no number I can guess that makes getting closed out of the synagogue anything less than isolating.

What is the promise given to those who are faithful, even when they are cast out, and it is made clear that the world has no place for them? What promise is made to people who now see the doors of both the synagogue and the Agora shut, isolating them from both the world of faith and the world of business? “These are the words of the one who opens and no one will shut.” I see much hope in this introduction; I see the promise that Christ has an open door for the marginalized.

In some ways, we can imagine what was going on; Many of us have had an experience where we were shut out of somewhere that was familiar and safe. If we have, we have a guess of the hurt that was going on. Personally, I’ve been very lucky — I’ve been more the type to observe shut doors than to have them shut on me. When I experience closed doors, it is generally because I choose to spend time with those who see the doors shut on them.

You know that my heart is with people who are shut out — it always has been. My earliest memory of disappointment with the church was when I saw friends that I invited were less than welcome. Right now, my heart is with a group of people who are being reduced to a political argument. Last month was not a good month to be involved with Hispanic ministry. Just last week, a man involved with Iglesia Amigos was picked up by ICE, and for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, his wife was released with an ankle bracelet. Just a couple weeks ago, Jeff Sessions demonized the Hispanic community by reading a list of crimes, connected with Ethnic backgrounds — it does not make it easier for a community of brown when the nation is being told by high government officials that brown people are criminals, and dangerous to the community. Next Tuesday, we suspect that a group of documented immigrants; the minor children of undocumented immigrants brought here, but later given permission to live and work here might find that when their work permits expire, they will not be renewed. We fear that people who have no memory of living anywhere else will become criminalized.

It is hard for me to walk with members of a marginalized community, because there are some doors open to me that, in order to enter them, I must leave them behind. It is distressing when we see doors that were once opened closed; especially when there are people who we saw as friends on the other side of those doors. Last month has literally been the kind of month where optimism has become dispair.

Yet Christ came to Earth to bring the gospel to the marginalized people. Christ preached good news to the poor — Christ is the one who sets before us an open door that no one will shut. The more time I spend with people who see doors closed, the more I realize that these words are good news for the desperate. The kingdom of heaven is made up of the faithful Christians of Philadelphia; who entered the door Christ opened while all those other doors were shut. Jesus came with the message that God accepts those that society calls unacceptable. With Christ, all the divisions we make no longer matter, because Christ tore down all those walls that we build.

The hard part of this gospel is that we are called to love those that Christ accepts. We are called to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, where those walls that were once so comfortable are now torn down. If Christ opens a door — we must let people enter that open door instead of trying to block it. Sometimes good news for the marginalized means a call to work for us. I remember reading a sermon where the preacher was telling the congregation they shouldn’t be a welcoming church — he made it clear that this wasn’t because they were welcoming the wrong people; but it was because they were no longer an inviting church. Welcoming is much easier than inviting; a sign next to an open door is welcoming. Inviting is showing people who are desperately searching for any open door that there is one open too them. Inviting is letting people who are marginalized know that the gospel is good news for them. Inviting is going to the lost, and leading them to Christ’s open door. This is the gospel — and as people of God’s kingdom, the gospel is our work.

Revelation 3:1-6 — Alive or Dead?

Reading: Revelation 3:1-6

In the video we watched during our Bible study, we learned that the this note to the church in Sardis alludes to the city history. The video told us that the city is an impressive fortress; it was powerful, wealthy, and difficult to attack. We were told that it was only defeated twice, and in both cases, one might say it was conquered because the people responsible for watching the gate were, at least metaphorically asleep at their post.

The thing is that everything about the city of Sardis said that it was strong — it had wealth, it had people, it had a city garrison, it had fortifications. In ancient times, it was the capital of Lydia, it was later an important Persian city, and following that it was a provincial capital in Roman Asia Minor. Everything about Sardis says that it is alive — that it is powerful; and when it fell it was for a stupid reason. Sardis felt strong and secure, so those given the task of defending the city neglected their task because they felt secure — and it turns out that their feelings were not always correct.

One thing that stands out about Sardis is that the letter to Sardis does not mention persecution, nor does the letter mention a false teacher. Revelation describes Sardis as having a reputation for being alive. We are not looking at a church under any sort of threat, no, what we are looking at is the site of a Cathedral who’s space is full whenever the doors are open, and who’s budget is always in the black. Sardis looks like the model church that everybody hopes to emulate — it has a reputation for being alive, but we all miss that it is dead.

I live in a nation where when we talk about signs that a church is healthy, we talk about numerical growth, property maintenance, and financial health. When we are looking for signs of life, we very often are looking at the health and sustainability of institutions. Almost everybody looks to the largest of churches to answer the question of how we can become better churches.

Now, I’m not going to say anything against having nice buildings, well kept properties, strong financial health, or a large congregation. Not one of these things are a sign that something is wrong — in fact, our instinct is right, all these things are a sign of institutional health. I personally would prefer to see our institutions remain strong and healthy, because I believe that the institutional church is a power that can do much good in the world.

In the United States, we see both signs that our institutions have become extremely powerful, and we also have signs that our institutions are falling apart. Church attendance is down, especially among younger generations, yet Christianity seems to be growing as a part of culture; we have Christian television stations, several radio networks, news outlets and op-eds, and Christian movies that have become mainstream enough to be shown in theaters. Music with Christian themes makes its way into popular radio, and sometimes explicitly Christian groups are included in the soundtracks of secular television shows. Church attendance is down, but one does not need to go to church to hear the Christian message, it comes into the home through every form of the media.

Not only is Christianity now part of our culture — and not only in subtle ways, but Christianity is also something that speaks to our government leaders. Our president has a group of religious advisers; and he is not unique in this. Congressmen openly discuss what Christians believe, and they take our beliefs seriously. Christianity is powerful. Christian ideas and messages are found in our popular culture, and our political leaders seek out Christian leaders to hear their advice on policy.

I know, not all American Christians experience their institutions as healthy, wealthy, and powerful — just as this was not the experience of the other churches mentioned in Revelation. I am not talking about all the churches that face internal divisiveness, struggle to pay the bills, and have empty rooms — I am talking about those institutions that have been consistently successful — I’m talking about those who have a reputation for being alive.

I’m not going to discuss whether or not churches such as Saddleback Church, Willow Creek Community Church, or Oak Hills are dead or alive. All of these churches are familiar to me, because they have been taught as models of good health. Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback wrote The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church. Willow Creek is often used as the model for the church growth movement, and Oak Hills has one of my favorite living Christian authors, Max Lucado, as a member of its pastoral staff.

What I am going to do is point out that these mega-churches all have a reputation for being alive. When churches feel that they are less than healthy, they often study these churches to find out how to grow into a healthier institution. Personally, I think this makes sense — because these are very healthy institutions, and people look to them for a reason.

What I am going to say is that the note written to the church at Sardis tells me that institutional life is not a sign of Spiritual life. No matter what external metrics I use to evaluate the health of a Christian institution, I am going to fail on one very important point — I am just a human being who must judge on outward appearances — but God will judge according to the heart.

What I do know is that no matter how healthy the institution, institutions are not life giving. Only God has the power to breath life into what is lifeless. Christianity is, ultimately, a resurrection story. Paul explains it very well in Ephesians, when he tells us that we who were dead in our sins were made alive in Christ. Jesus described the living church when he promised his disciples: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.”

Institutions are useful, and I’d rather have a building than not have one — but, a living church is something very different than a healthy institution. The measure of a healthy church isn’t any of the trappings of an institution, nor is it influence, nor any outward sign of success. The sign of life is this real presence of Jesus Christ.

When I ask what a letter to the American church might be, I think that it likely would be this letter to Sardis. The American church has a reputation for being alive. Even now, we are sending out missionaries, we are actively speaking to our government and our culture. We have built powerful institutions. We have shown that we are able to raise money to support these institutions — we show many signs of life.

Unfortunately, we fail by focusing on building institutions and ignoring the source of life. We build institutions that do good things, and then mistake the institutions for a living church. If we have people meeting together in Christ’s name, with Christ in the midst — we have life, even without the institutions. If we have life, institutions can serve the life that we have; but, when we put faith in something outside of the life Jesus gives, we lack life.

At this point, I will judge the American church; in many of our institutions, I cannot see evidence of life. Sometimes I cannot see evidence of faith either. I see us building our institutions, and fighting to win battles, often without taking the work of Jesus seriously. Sometimes it seems we want to win the support of governments more than we want to win the hearts and the minds of the people — forgetting that only one of these things advances the Kingdom of Heaven.

My advice to the American church — something we are all a part of, is to never forget that Jesus is the source of life. I advise us all to value every meeting between you, someone else, and the real presence of Jesus Christ. Hang onto what is truly alive. As great as institutions are, they are no replacement for the life that only God can give us. I advise all of us to go back to our roots — hold onto the life that Christ gives us — and, as we hold onto that life, may we make sure that the institutions we build honor and serve the life of Christ’s church.

Revelation 2:8-17

Reading: Revelation 2:8-17

Today we read the messages to the churches at Smyrna and Pergamum. There is a common theme and a common history between these two churches — the theme is suffering persecution, and the common history is that both are known for suffering persecution.

I will start with Pergamum — Antipas of Pergamum is the first known Martyr in Asia Minor. Antipas died in 92 AD in a Brazen Bull. I don’t know if you know what a Brazen bull is — but, I’ll tell you. A brazen bull is a statue of a bull with a door in the side, and tubing that transmits sound from the inside to the mouth — sound that is distorted by the tubing is supposed to sound like bellows. The victim is locked inside of the bull, and a fire is lit under it; and as the person is roasted, his screams become the bull’s bellows.

The note in Revelation mentions a person who was executed in this creative way. The cruelty and the inventiveness that is displayed here makes it clear that this is a place where Satan’s throne is — if Satan had no throne there, how could such inhuman cruelty be openly part of society.

Smyrna is described as a place where Christians were slandered, and the local Jews were pointed out as enemies. Smyrna is different from Pergamum in that it is a prediction: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer… for ten days you will have affliction.”

In Smyrna, Jews were tolerated, and their monotheism was tolerated. One question that this brings up is whether or not Christians share in the toleration. The Jews distanced themselves from Christians, and the Christians were accused of Cannibalism, human sacrifice, and other libel. I’m not sure how long 10 days is — but I do know the most famous martyr of Smyrna was Polycarp — and he ordered to be burned at a stake about 50 years after Revelation was written — and he was brought to the stake jointly by the Jewish elite and the pagans of Smyrna. Whatever the situation that would last 10 days was, it was still very much in effect 50 years later.

Personally, I like the idea that the 10 days are the 10 persecutions of the Early church; if they are, than at the time Revelation is written, they would be in the second day of affliction — and the ten days would be over at the start of the 4th century — so 10 days would be about 250 years — the persecutions end with the Church becoming the Imperial religion.

The promise I see in Revelation is that if Christianity endures, it will survive the persecution, and even the persecutors. There is a promise that the power of those who kill only have the power to touch the body — and because of Resurrection, they are powerless against the Church.

I’m done talking about history. There is much more that could be said, there is much I could say about idol worship, I could read from Numbers, and summarize Numbers 22-24, telling the story of Balaam in detail. I would try to connect what is written in Revelation to the experience of the ancient Hebrews. — In a normal weekend, that is what I would do, but this isn’t a normal weekend, so, I have already finished my commentary.

Today, I wonder how a letter to an American church might read. Would we read something like: “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is?” Would the letter addressed to us praise us for standing firm against the evil that is in our world? Would it speak of how much we suffer or will suffer?

At this time, I seriously doubt that our letter would read like that. We live in a nation where persecution is so unimaginable that a simple intellectual challenge to Christian morality or belief is as close as we come to persecution — and there are many who seem to believe that such a challenge is persecution. Christian thought is considered in the highest level of government, in a respectful way, even by those who disagree with it; this is so true that those rare times when we don’t hear a common Christian belief being treated respectfully by a government official, we feel that it is wrong, and frighteningly abnormal.

What would a letter be like to a church who faces no persecution, who is not punished nor separated from society for their beliefs, who’s members have control of significant wealth, who has influence in every level of the government, and who’s members hold many positions of high leadership? How does the letter change when in an environment where the president reminds us that we worship God, not government? It seems like we, just like Christian Rome, would get a letter to a church that conquered by enduring hardship.

You see, many American churches have a history of persecution. The American idea of religious freedom was created by and for persecuted Christians. We overcame, we created a place for ourselves where we didn’t face that any more, and part of the goal was to protect the freedoms of those who have no power. With our history, what would Christ say to us?

I think that the letter would be less than kind. I think that we would be called out on our lack of faith in God, and how we really believe in ourselves, our wealth and our power and our personal knowledge.

I think that we would be condemned for the relationship formed with political parties. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are truly based on Christian morality; both are essentially secular. Now, there is both a Christian Right and Left that have one this one thing in common — both compromise things they believe to be part of the party. Sometimes compromise comes in the form of deemphasizing a traditional belief, or a teaching of Jesus — sometimes it goes further, and it is literally calling something good that scripture calls evil, or condemning something that Christ commands.

I think that we would be condemned for the idolatry of nationalism. The first Christians dealt with the question whether or not Caesar is Lord — they made it clear that Jesus is Lord, and nobody else really is. We live in a nation where Caesar makes no claim to be lord — yet, we are willing to compromise the gospel for political power. We are not asked to worship Caesar, but we are willing to bow down and worship Satan for the promise that he will give us the world to rule.

Today, I think the biggest thing that would be spoken against us is that we say we love God, but we openly hate our neighbor. We think nothing about speaking of those created in God’s image as if they had no value, and if their lives were worthless. It is as if we’ve decided that God’s image is a select group of people — not every human, but just one ethnicity.

This weekend, a group of White Nationalists extremists held a rally in Virginia. This rally included a Nazi terrorist using a car to harm and murder people who disagreed with the Nazi message. I look at the American church, and I see a group that does not have the courage to say that this hate is sin; and that if you hate your neighbor, who is made in God’s image, you cannot love God. If the American church said this clearly, we would not have seen the ugly display that formed at Charlottesville; but we have not said it — instead, too many of us have defended the rhetoric of hate. In fact, we have a Christian culture where church members recruit other church members for the Klan. Your grandparents likely were aware of the days in the 1920’s when one of the local pastors was a leader of the Indiana KKK; and nobody seemed to have a problem with this. We long ago compromised to the point of blasphemy. If there were a letter to the American church, the letter would tell us to repent of this blasphemy.

Every generation has its own difficulties. The difficulties we read about in scripture are very often the difficulties of living in a hostile culture under a hostile government. Our situation is different, our greatest difficulty is that we are caving without any pressure to those things that early Christians would resist to their death. Our greatest enemy is not Caesar, but compromised Christian leaders telling us that evil is good.

The letters all have this in common: “Whoever conquers” has a promise such as never tasting the second death, or a white stone with a new name. Overcoming a disease in the community is harder than overcoming what is external community. It is very hard because it is our problem; it is our sin. May we overcome though, because a church that hates who it should love is no Christian church at all.